Monday, October 29, 2007


I love tea. I would say that it borders on an addiction.

When I was a kid, I spent my allowance money on books and tea. Yeah, I was a weird kid. My twenty dollars a week went to Jane Austen and Earl Grey; Mark Twain and Sassafras; and The Raj Quartet and Darjeeling.

My grandma was my first pusher. As far back as I can remember, she would make big pots of tea. Not charming little ceramic pots. Grandma’s tea consisted of about half a dozen Lipton tea bags dropped into a big metal pot of full of water---the strings from the bags wrapped around the handle to keep the tea bags in place while the water boils. Not steeps. BOILS. The tea bags could simmer on the stovetop for hours. A few years later, during a trip to the mall, a girlfriend pointed out that someone nearby was smoking pot.

“How do you know?” I innocently asked.

“Because it smells like burnt tea.”

This was a smell I knew. Apparently, so did she. I guess all grandmas were taught to boil their tea bags. Maybe it’s a Southern thing. Or Polish. Who knows? But until the age of seven, I firmly believed this was the proper way to make tea. But, I have to say, if you poured a cup before it burned to a crisp like old 7-11 coffee---it was pretty good. Grandma made tea the English way---lots of sugar and whole milk. Mmmm. Not only did I begin to ask for tea---I started ordering it out.

Yes, I was the precocious child ordering tea. I remember the first time as if it were yesterday…

A diner. Somewhere around Grand and Gravois in the Southside of St. Louis. It was a rainy, fall day. I don’t know how I remember all the details, because I couldn’t have been more than seven. But we were on our way to Sears to do some early Christmas shopping and the three of us ducked into our regular diner for a bite to eat. On the jukebox, I could hear Dionne Warwick singing “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again”. Although I should hasten to mention that I’m sure the song had come out several years before---I’ve been told I date myself when I mention popular songs.

In any case, my mom and grandma ordered their regular cup of tea. And, though this was a pivotal grown-up moment for me, they didn’t seem shocked when I informed the waitress that I would like a cup of tea as well.

A few moments later, I was surprised to find an elaborate set-up placed before me: A pot of hot water, cup, saucer, spoon, tea bag, sugar, milk and a lemon.


This was a dilemma. I was used to my pre-made boiled tea with all the extras lovingly added in by Grandma. Nevertheless, as they continued their conversation over who wanted what for Christmas, I tried to follow their lead and assemble my tea. I felt so grown-up and mature. I was one of the shopping ladies. Dropping in for a club sandwich and a cup of tea. I felt so grown-up that I decided to take Dionne Warwick’s advice to never fall in love again. After all, what do you get when you kiss a guy? Enough germs to catch pneumonia---that’s what. Ick. And, even though I’d never kissed Jeff from Kindergarten--- he’d been more interested in the free popsickles at recess--- I was now a grown-up woman and I could be as bitter and jaded as Dionne. After all, I was tossed aside for a cherry popsickle. And that didn’t make such a good song.

I looked down at my tea. The hot water had turned that beautiful brown tea colour. I added the sugar and the milk. But what was the lemon for? Well, for lemon-scented tea, of course. I went ahead and squeezed it in. Because I was a lady at lunch. With my gal pals. I had no time for a guy with a pin who’d burst your bubble. And what kind of jerk pops a girl’s balloon?--that’s what I’d like to know.

A moment later, my milk began to curdle in my tea cup. This wasn’t right. Grandma’s tea didn’t look like this. My mother seemed upset with me as she called the waitress and explained that I’d squeezed lemon in with the milk in my tea and it curdled and she’s so sorry and is there any way I could get a new pot of tea?

It was at that point, that I decided to learn a little something about tea.

I won’t attempt to distill all my years of tea wisdom into an over-written and under-edited blog. However, I will say that my love of tea has grown and expanded tremendously since my Early Boiled Lipton Period.

For starters, Grandma also made sassafras tea. That, you actually HAD to boil. A big metal pot full of boiling roots---which, a few years after she died, were declared to be a cause of cancer in lab rats. But, boy, was it tasty. Once again, lots of sugar and milk and you had yourself a hot, soothing beverage. How could cancer taste so good?

From there I branched out on my own. I fell into the Twinings line of teas that were conveniently packaged in affordable packets of ten. Earl Grey. Prince of Wales. Russian Caravan. Jasmine Tea. English Breakfast. Irish Breakfast. Ceylon Breakfast. I felt like I was breakfasting all over the world.

In high school I started sampling the herbal teas. Chamomile. Lemon Balm. Orange Spice.

In college, I wore out my hot pot boiling water for cup after cup of Blackcurrant, Green Tea, or something warm and decadent with fruit and almonds.

I think it’s now time to say that I’ve never been a tea snob. I’ve got all the paraphernalia---the little metal tea brewing thingys and the pots and special cups and saucers and the tins of fresh tea leaves blah blah blah. But I would never turn up my nose at a tea bag. Never. I came from tea bags. I would never look down on my roots. No pun intended.

Over the years, I’ve developed a tea fetish that can often get out of control. My brother came to New York to visit me a few years back and noticed all the teas in my kitchen. The next day, we made a visit to Chinatown. As he saw me gathering boxes of tea in my arms, he suddenly burst out, “You’re buying MORE tea?”

Yes. I am.

I guess, as far as addictions go, it’s a pretty healthy one. When they announced the antioxidant properties of tea a few years back, I did a little dance of joy. Like Grace Adler on Will and Grace, “Told you so! Told you so!”

Nothing can stop me now. Just yesterday, I made my bi-monthly pilgrimage to the New Yorker’s Tea Central---Chinatown.

I love going to Chinatown to shop for tea. I have all my special tea stores and am always on the lookout for new and exciting teas. I will be the first to admit that I haven’t tried them all. Someday, I hope to have a full and thorough knowledge of tea. However, for now, I LOVE the adventure!

I will now share with you a secret. For those of you who absolutely LOVE tea---I will suggest that you cheque out the New Kam Man shop on Canal St. It’s my special secret tea-finding place. It’s unimposing. From the front, it looks like a simple Asian grocery. On the way there, you’ll be bombarded by several Asian men who will approach you offering to sell you handbags. Pay them no mind. You don't need a new knock-off handbag. You don't. Just walk away. A few young Asian boys will see you and say, “Hey, baby.” I have no idea what that is about. Just keep moving. But if you can locate New Kam Man, and find the stairs leading to the basement, you will see an amazing collection of wonderfully varied, yet low-cost, teas. Everything from tea bags for 55 cents for a box of twenty to fresh tea leaves at $40 a pound. Nothing is old and dusty. The teas are regularly stocked and fresh. And there’s always something new and interesting. Yesterday, I spent $20 on tea and came home with a treasure.

The inventory:

A small tin of Black Persimmon Tea Leaves
A box of 20 Green Apple Green Tea Bags
A medium sized bag of Roasted Green Tea Leaves
A bag of fresh Pur-Eh Tea Leaves
A box of 20 Lichee Black Tea Bags
A small tin of Lotus Tea Leaves
A small package of Mini-Bowls of Tea Tou Cha
A bag of freshly dried Chrysanthemum Tea
A large box of 100 Yunnan Bo Nay Tea Bags

All this for about twenty dollars. A fabulous deal. If you’re ever in Chinatown in NYC, be sure to pay them a call. The workers who doll out the fresh tea leaves don’t speak much English, so you pretty much have to point and tell them to give you another scoop or stop. Let’s face it---it’s sign language. But they’re ever so nice and more than happy to help you with your tea needs. They also carry a large supply of tea mugs and traditional Chinese and Japanese tea pots. Basically, all your Oriental tea needs will be met at New Kam Man.

I’ve come a long way since Lipton, baby!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Complaint letters

Last week I purchased a four-pack of Charmin Ultra Soft.

Yeah, I'm all for the environment. I try to do my part. But if Laurie David can eat up fossil fuel flying around in a private jet, then I can have my Ultra Soft toilet paper.

However, I was none too pleased to find upon getting home, that I merely had regular Charmin. The packaging said Ultra Soft. But it was just regular Charmin. Which is still pretty soft. But not what I paid extra for.

As a consumer, I was fairly miffed. After all, it's not the sort of thing you have the time or the inclination to exchange. If you're buying toilet paper, it's a safe bet that you need it fairly soon. The odds of you returning it are pretty low. And I can only imagine the looks on the faces of the cashiers at my local market as I stand there swearing that I paid for Ultra Soft, but only got Soft.

However, as a writer, it's my chance to shine. You don't want to mess with a writer. Because we will sit down and write a complaint letter. And, for those of us still struggling in the profession, it's often our only chance to get read. Oh, I will write a complaint letter.

I've written complaint letters about everything from the service on the "A" Train to the discontinuation of the Kraft Spaghetti dinner---all of which I was plenty peeved about. And almost 100% of the time, I get a response. That's about fifty percent higher than my shot at getting a response from query letters about my novel. You bet I'm writing a complaint.

Not only that, but I've been told that I argue my points extremely well. So well, in fact, that I've often been asked to intervene on the behalf of fellow employees who feel they've been treated unfairly. Because, in essense, being a good writer is like being a good lawyer. You need to get the attention of the jury, astound them with your mastery of the subject, take them into a world where they can suspend their disbelief, and totally bring them over to your side. The best writers and the best lawyers do this on a daily basis.

Complaint letters help to sharpen the skills.

A few weeks ago, I had an issue with a new manager in our restaurant. I won't go into details, but suffice it to say, she was mean. Really mean. However, being a union establishment, I didn't have to take this. I could write a complaint letter. Something, I've been told, that most employees don't bother to do. However, what I did learn was that in a corporate environment, an actual letter makes a huge difference in how a company proceeds with disciplinary action.

Having a heart to heart with your supervisor about a problem is always a good choice. And I did that. And was promised action. But when a certain person's behaviour doesn't change...well, then you get my letter. And a letter is the last thing a company or manager wants. Because now it's on paper. There's a document. A paper trail. And they HAVE to do something. Whether they want to or not. In this case, they wanted to. Why? Because I was right. This woman was nasty. She even talked about her fellow managers behind their backs. Everyone wanted her gone. But I wrote a complaint letter. Within two weeks she was gone.

I can't take the credit entirely. After all, I was not the only one experiencing her vitrol. But the manager definitely gave a little laugh when I handed him my complaint letter.

"Wow. Six pages?"

"Yup. Don't mess with a writer."

And bye-bye Melissa.

My love of complaint letters first began many years ago. I've always had a problem with new packaging. When you're going down the aisle of your local grocery store looking for your usual product and suddenly can't find it---Where is it? I don't see it anywhere. And you look and you look and suddenly you see it. But it's different. You almost didn't recognize it. Why? Because there's new packaging.

When Quaker Oats started putting their oats into a container with a plastic lid instead of the cardboard lid with the string---I just about had a fit. Is it the same? Is it different? Because if they changed the packaging, who knows what they changed about the product?

Nestle Quick. Remember?---it used to come in a cardboard container with a metal lid that you had to use a spoon to pry open. Now it's a plastic container.

And Campbell's soup? When did they feel the need to put pictures of their soup on the labels? I don't like it. I don't like it at all.

Because sometimes they DO change the product. Twinings Tea? Hello. The Earl Grey has completely changed since they switched to different packaging. And I don't like the tea quite so much. It's weak. It is. I'll say it out loud. I don't care. The Twinings Corporation is skimping on tea leaves in their Earl Grey tea. It's a fact. And I'm not the only one who thinks so. There's a whole blog some guy wrote devoted to the fact that Twinings Tea is cheating consumers out of tea leaves. It's a crime. And I have a six page letter to prove it.

Frankly, it's all about change. I like continuity. I don't like change. Change is generally arbitrary and pointless.

Why does the Contadina Tomato Paste Company feel the need to continually update the hair and clothes on the lady on the Contadina Tomato Paste Can? Is this all they have to do in their boardroom meetings? It's outrageous. I've been purchasing Contadina Tomato Paste for years. Like my mother. And my grandmother before her. I do not need a modern-looking lady on the label of my Contadina Tomato Paste Can. And---by the way---label? They used to print the label directly onto the can. What happened there? I really would like to know.

This might seems ridiculous to some of you. But I don't see it as any more ridiculous than the change itself. I can imagine no meeting more ridiculous than a bunch of guys in suits sitting around a big table discussing what sort of hairstyle and apron the lady on the Contadina Tomato Paste can should have. It's tomato sauce. It's been around for a long, long time. Nobody's going to start or stop buying it because she has a few more curls.

So tonight, I sat down to compose my letter to the Charmin Toilet Paper Company. It's not quite six pages; but I think I made my point. There's a letter, photos, even a sampling of the two different types of toilet paper to prove that there is a discerible difference in quality. If they're trying to pawn off the Soft as Ultra Soft---they've got another thing coming.

However, if it was simply a manufacturing malfunction---then I think they should be aware of the problem. I never really wanted to be a whistle-blower---but somebody's got to speak up.

Do I get anything from these complaint letters? No. Nothing. I've never received any product in the mail.

Do I get a reply? Generally, yes. There are people employed by corporations to do just this job. And I'm at least moderately sane. I can imagine some of the kooks these people have to deal with. Although I'm still upset by the lack of response regarding possibly the greatest complaint letter I ever sent---to The History Channel. Oh, they were war-mongering with their Saddam Hussein documentaries a few years ago and everybody knows it.

Does my letter get read? YES. And that's the beauty of it all. Even if you're not a writer. There's someone at Nestle or General Mills or wherever who will listen to you. Elected officials don't pay as much attention to civilian complaints as Kraft Foods or the NYC Transit Authority.

Do I get satisfaction? No. By the time you have a complaint, the companies have already decided upon their course of action. It's rare that consumer evolution is reversed. But then, remember New Coke?

Leo Buscaglia once said: "The greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing."

Sure, I don't think he was talking about toilet paper. But if you can't even go out on the limb for toilet paper, what the hell are you doing in that tree?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Old Lady in the Red Hat

I'm aware of the fact that there are websites out there for waiters and waitresses to vent their pent-up frustrations over customers.

I've read a few of them for fun.

But frankly, as a waitress myself, I find most of the complaints to be just a lot of whining. Most waitress jobs are pretty disposable. If the management or the clientele sucks---get the hell out.

But then, I'm pretty lucky. If you can call being a waitress lucky at all. My job is union (so management can't get away with treating you unfairly) and it comes with health insurance---makes Mom very happy. We also get a fairly decent clientele. Our prices are pretty steep so it scares off the riff-raff.

Most of the time.

Tonight I had the table from hell.

Table 18.

Two old-biddy white ladies just off the bus from Pennsylvania. They started by literally walking away from the hostess and just seating themselves. Then, after placing their order (two filet mignon specials with several substitutions and special orders, a Rob Roy and a Screwdriver) I noticed that only one of the ladies had a glass of water in front of her.

"Would you like some water?" I asked the other lady---the one in the red hat.

"No. I'm waiting for my drink!"

Well, just give me a moment to step away from the table and give your drink order to the bar you bitter old alcoholic bitch.

No, I didn't say that. What I said was, "Sure. I'll be right back."

I went to the conputer and entered their food and drink order and then proceeded to pick up their drinks from the bar. Figured I'd better get some alcohol in this one as soon as possible.

As I walked out of the kitchen, there she was. Standing right outside the kitchen waiting for me. The bitter, shriveled-up old lady in the red beret.

"Don't bring our food out right away! We want to enjoy our drinks!" she snapped.

"Oh, well, I already put your order in but I can try to slow it down..." I explained as I walked her back to the table.

"Do you understand? We don't want to be rushed! We want to enjoy our drinks!"

"Nobody's rushing you, ma'am. Let me just go in the kitchen and see if I can..."

"We feel like we're being rushed. We just want to enjoy our drinks first. We're not in a hurry."

"Okay. Let me go in the kitchen and stop them because they've already put the steaks on the grill and I don't want them to get dried out for you..."

"We need some time. We want to sit here with our drinks."

And on and on she went. Meanwhile, the steaks are sizzling away and I can't get away from her complaining.

"You shouldn't have put our order in so fast!" she snaps.

"Well, ma'am---you gave me your dinner order and I put it in. That's my job. Otherwise people get upset if their food doesn't come out quickly."

"The only reason I gave you my order was because you asked for it."

Okay, I have no idea what to say to this crazy woman. I simply explain that if I can go in the kitchen now, I can slow down the process and that when a customer gives me an order, it's my job to promptly place it with the kitchen. She doesn't seem happy with this answer.

I go into the kitchen and immediately inform the cooks to stop making the order and to wait to make it until I tell them.

Then I bitch.

Oh, I tell everyone about Table 18 and the Lady in the Red Hat.

For those of you who go into a restaurant and create a scene---you should know that as soon as your waiter walks away from the table, they talk about you. They use all the seven words George Carlin talks about and quite a few more. You are described in the most unflattering terms to everyone on the staff. And we're good mimics. We do your voice and all your intonations and mannerisms for everyone from the manager on down. And it ain't pretty. Within moments, if you can tear yourself away from your conversation and look around, you will notice all eyes in the restaurant upon you. Because everyone wants to see what you look like. A certain amount of it is curiosity. Another part is sheer identification. We all want to know what you look like in case you come in again.

In fact, even some of the customers will know about you. One of our regulars, a big wig at Lehman Brothers Investment, was recently asking me if servers talk about their customers when they walk away. I suppose, in the financial industry, the water cooler chit-chat is pretty tight-lipped. Servers, on the other hand, can and do. So, in addition to sharing the noisome behaviour of table 18 with the staff, I made sure to share it with him. Within about 10 minutes, everyone in the restaurant had taken a moment to go over and look at the Lady in the Red Hat.

Now here's the funny part. A few minutes later, after I'd shared their behaviour with everyone in the restaurant, I suddenly see the lady gesturing me over. Oh no. This can't be good.

"I just wanted to apologize to you. I'm really sorry about talking to you like that. I know you were just doing your job."


She explained that she was tired. She'd left early this morning from Pennsylvania. She had been walking around all day. She felt so bad. And they were ready for their order after she got her second Rob Roy. She's so sorry. She even made sure I saw her finger the big, gold cross around her neck---a gesture I can only assume is meant to show me that she's a good Christian woman.

Okay. Sure. No problem. I was very nice. I chatted with them for a few moments. I was a little wary, because she still seemed a bit odd to me. But it at least cheered me up a bit to know that she felt bad. Or did she?

Because when she got her food, everything seemed fine. Then, a few minutes later, she pointed out that the shrimp was slightly uncooked. Okay. It was. Sure. I offered to get her some fresh shrimp. But now she was in a hurry. Where before she needed plenty of time to sip her drink---now she was suddenly in a hurry. She had a bus to catch back to the Poconos and couldn't wait for some fresh shrimp. So I offered to show it to the manager and see what he could do.

The manager (who'd already had it up to here with them) took off a percentage of their bill. Then, when I went to the table to tell them, they suddenly decided their steak wasn't cooked to the right temperature. They ordered it medium. I took a good look at the steak. It was medium. And they'd already eaten over half of it.

They wanted to see a manager. And he did not want to see them.

Nevertheless, he went over and came back to tell me the results. They were now refusing to pay for anything---including their drinks! He told them flat out that they would have to pay for their drinks. But he would go ahead and take the food off their bill. Frankly, he just wanted them gone.

He dropped off their bill and I ran the charge. They signed the charge and made sure to thank me as they left.

The tip for all this trouble?


Most likely, the old hag only apologized because she worried I might do something to her food. I know there are servers out there who might resort to this form of corporal punishment. But it's way too low for me. I would never tamper with anyone's food. And 99% of the servers out there would never tamper with food, either. It's just bad form. It's stooping to their level. And I'm better than that.

At this point, I can only resort to voodoo.

No, I am not a regular practitioner. Altho I do have a few souvenirs from my trip to New Orleans a few years back.

And, I'm sorry Old Lady in the Red Hat----but you leave me no choice.

No sooner did she begin her arthritic trek to her Port Authority bus, then I had already begun my curse.

First of all, she would miss her bus. That was a given. With the evil thoughts I directed at her, there was no way she was hopping on the 7:10 to the Poconos. Way too much hoodoo flying around for that to happen.

Then, I sent a curse that she would get robbed. Not beaten. Just robbed. After all, anyone who hangs onto their pennies as much as this woman deserves a real New York Welcome.

Now, while she's crying about losing her wallet, suddenly she's taken ill with some mysterious illness. Maybe the undercooked shrimp will help with this particular part.

And then, as she's sitting on a dirty bench in the Port Authority, bemoaning her plight---don't lose me here---she suddenly dies. Yes, she dies.

Oh com'on, she was pretty old. It's going to happen sooner than later. And I really don't see this woman bringing any joy to the world.

And then, just as she dies, her head drops to her chin and her red beret falls to the ground.

A homeless man picks it up. Good for him.

I've heard that when you die, you poop your pants. And she just ate...

So there she is, lying on the floor of the Port Authority---reeking of poo and Rob Roys. And no identification. She's likely mistaken for a drunken homeless person who's passed out.

Oh, they'll figure out that she's dead in a few days. Once she really starts to smell.

They'll take her decaying body back to the morgue. It'll probably take some time for the family to recover the body. After all, she's out of state and has no id or her trademark red hat. But then, I can't imagine too many loved ones searching for her. I'd give it a good two months.

And I firmly believe this will all happen.

In fact, I have my black candle from the Voodoo Museum lit right now.

See---you don't have to spit in their food.

Ahhh. I feel so much better.

Monday, October 8, 2007

The Laundry Room Mystery

When you’re looking for a new apartment, you generally have a list of requirements. Allows pets. Safe neighbourhood. Reasonable rent. These are the basics. By the time you whittle your choices down and make some appointments, you’re now looking for life’s little amenities. Elevator. Hardwood floors. Security cameras. And my personal favourite---vermin-free. Original crown molding is not as attractive if roaches are crawling up the walls.

Therefore, being a savvy and experienced apartment hunter, I looked carefully before making my final decision. And, I’m happy to say that, three months later, the honeymoon is still going strong.

Over the years, I’ve discovered that a home is like a relationship---you learn something new about it everyday. And my latest discovery is like finding out that your new boyfriend is not only a great guy, but also a world class French chef.


My new apartment comes with free books!

For an avid reader like myself, this is like stumbling upon the Comestock Lode. You see, some mysterious person in my building throws away books. And not crappy old textbooks and out-of-date computer manuals. Good books. Books I would actually pay good money for new at Barnes and Noble or used at The Strand.

For the past few months, I’ve noticed that a mysterious Book Angel seems to leave their unwanted, already-read books in the laundry room. So not only do I get a super fantastic laundry room with state-of-the-art machines---I also get free books! This is an amenity that was not listed in the brochure. Makes the steep Manhattan rents much more bearable. It also gives me the opportunity to stumble across authors I might never have discovered.

Currently, I’m finishing up a free copy of Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith. Found it in the laundry room last month. Great psychological thriller. Hitchcock made a movie out of it back in the fifties. Nowadays, people might know her better as the author of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

Last month, I read an uncorrected proof that was left in the laundry room of a book titled Remainder by Tom McCarthy. Very Camus-esque, wildly irritating, yet somehow irresistible. If it were a wine, it would be a petulant pinot noir.

Tonight, as I hauled my two loads of dirty bed linens and miscellaneous clothes into the laundry room, my eye immediately went to the new pile of books waiting in the free-book area. I hurriedly shoved my laundry into the machines and then went to inspect the latest laundry room releases.

At the top of the pile, was a book called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. The title sounded familiar, but the subtitle completely sold me, “A Novel About the History of Philosophy”. That’s definitely going home with me. Then I discovered the first three books in the Alexander McCall Smith series The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. I’d already read the first volume and had planned on adding to my collection. So, not only do I get the next two volumes for free, I picked up volume one for one of my best friends at work who is hooked on African films. Then there was Waiting by Ha Jin. The added engravings on the cover advertise it as being a National Bestseller and also a winner of the National Book Award. An author I had never heard of and am now looking forward to chequeing out. There’s also a hardcover edition of a novel titled In the Drink by Kate Christensen. It’s a first novel and sounds like an interesting cup of tea. And finally, two Gregory Macguire novels, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Lost. Macguire is the author of Wicked---another book I’ve always meant to read. Either my mysterious Book Angel kept this particular book for his/her own collection, or someone beat me to it. In any case, I’ve decided to pick up a copy of Wicked before I tackle the other two.

Needless to say, today’s catch was particularly enthralling. With no one else in sight, I gathered up the whole stack and scurried upstairs to my nest with about a hundred dollars worth of new books. I could hardly believe my good fortune.

A few hours later, as I lay in bed reading one of my Laundry Room Releases, I began to feel a twinge of guilt. After all, I was benefiting from someone’s largesse. Who was my mysterious Book Angel? And, more to the point, wouldn’t they appreciate a thank you of some sort? Or at least, some knowledge that their books had found a good home? Like those unwed mothers who drop off their babies in front of a church. My Book Angel didn’t throw their babies in the trash. They left them for someone else to care for. Perhaps a thank you note would be in order.

I suppose the laundry room would be the proper place to leave a thank you note. So, after much thought, I sat down and composed a grateful, yet casual missive, thanking my unknown benefactor for their generous donations.

And then, I paused.


After all, I’m happy with things the way they are. Would beginning a communication with my mysterious Book Angel change my laundry room book-mobile? I know this might sound silly---but I kind of like the mystery. After all, we seem to have a good thing going here. Book Angel makes more room in their apartment, and I get some free books. It’s a win-win situation. Sort of the equivalent of a book booty call. A free exchange of wants and needs. And completely anonymous. Do I really want to ruin my Laundry Day Surprise?

So, for now, I opt to remain the anonymous Book Adoptee. After all, some birth mothers just want to move on with their lives.

Let the mystery continue.

But this is definitely the best apartment ever.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

How I Got My Dresser

The other day, I waited on three guys from Spain. Now, for those of you not in the know, foreigners are notoriously lousy tippers. Sometimes, it’s not all their fault. Every country has different tipping procedures and percentages. And frankly, the US tops the list. Why? Because American waiters are paid sweatshop wages. Most of Europe doesn’t tip more than a few coins. In the UK, it’s generally around 10%. Australians have no qualms about leaving you nothing at all. Asians are usually pretty good---maybe it’s the polite thing. And the Canadians will fool you. They look and sound just like us---and then they hand you the credit card with the maple leaf. Shit! They’re Canadian! They really should have square heads like in the South Park cartoons.

However, in other countries, servers are paid a livable wage. By the time most US servers pay federal, state and city taxes and that damned FICA---well, we’re making about a dollar an hour. Really. If you’ve never waited tables, you should know that waiters in the US live on their tips. In fact, if you don’t tip, it actually COSTS US money to wait on you. We have to pay taxes on our sales, because the government assumes that we’ve been tipped. We also have to pay a percentage from our sales to the bus boys, runners and the bartender. And if we’re not tipped, we still have to pay. All the guidebooks to the US list the tipping customs here---15-20% for service. However, even though I’ve seen the guidebooks actually sitting on the table, our clientele seem to conveniently skip over this section of the manual for their visit to NYC.

Needless to say, it can sometimes be downright frustrating. Especially with the British who go on and on telling you how “lovely” everything was. And they “cheers” you a thousand times. Then they get an $80 cheque and leave you three dollars. A friend of mine swears that “cheers” means “fuck you” in British.

But I digress.

There once were three guys from Spain…

Now, these fellas were nice as nice goes. Didn’t speak English at all. Seemed like business guys. Late thirties to early forties. They started by asking me if I spoke Spanish. I explained that I did a little. Then they asked me about the “costillas”---the ribs. I told them in Spanish what the dinner came with and answered a few more questions in Spanish. I brought them a round of drinks and their dinners came out a few minutes later. They seemed happy. Gave me the thumbs up. I stopped by periodically to see how they were doing and everything was “bueno”. Super. Great. All seemed well. They weren’t overly friendly, but nice enough.

Then the check came. It was $85. I wasn’t counting on much. But then, I’ve always had a hard time kicking that Anne Frank thing about believing people to be really good at heart. Tho I sometimes think that if Anne Frank had survived the Holocaust and gotten a job waiting tables at a café on Leidseplein while supporting her fledgling writing career---well, she would’ve been singing a different tune. That being said, I am an equal opportunity server. While I know there are some servers who skimp on service to Europeans, I like to give them all a chance.

So I left the bill on the table, informed them they could pay me when they were ready, and walked away. A few moments later, I came back to the table to find the three guys gone and three hundred dollar bills on the table. There must be some mistake. What? A two-hundred and fifteen dollar tip on an eighty-five dollar check? But it seemed real. The hundred dollar bills were not stuck together in any way. In fact, they were slightly separated underneath the check. One. Two. Three.

For those of you who might think this sort of bonanza befalls every waitress occasionally---think again. Trust me, do not quit your day job and rush off to your nearest Applebees. It does not. In fact, it occurs so rarely, that I discovered I was actually upset about it.

“Did those guys say anything to you?” I asked the manager on duty at the front door---who also happened to be Spanish. No. They hadn’t said a word.

“Why?” he asked. “Was there a problem?”

“No. But why did they leave me $215 on an $85 check?”

I was this close to peeved. I asked everyone they might have come into contact with during the course of their meal. No one had anything to add. I spent the rest of the night waiting for them to come back for their money, all the time wondering why. Why?

As I sat on the train home that night, all sorts of thoughts ran thru my head: Maybe they just wanted to get rid of their American currency? Maybe they were drunk? Maybe my restaurant Spanish was finally paying off?

The next day at work, the other servers heard about my windfall and began offering their own case scenarios: Maybe they were drug dealers with loads of money to burn? Maybe they didn’t understand American money? Or maybe they were just really nice guys?

Who knows.

What I did know is that I had an extra $215 burning a hole in my pocket, and baby needs a new chest of drawers.

But now, of course, I’m afraid to spend the money. Because what if they come back? What if they made a mistake and come in a few days later wanting their money back? Of course, I would give it to them. But this was really starting to burn me up. I mean, here I am with an extra $215 and I’m afraid to spend a penny of it.

Then word of my fabulous tip got to the General Manager. He was under the mistaken impression that it had been on a charge and that the manager on duty should perhaps have made a copy of the charge in case they called back. In fact, I got the distinct impression that perhaps he thought I didn’t deserve such a tip. And frankly, I’d be the first one to agree with him. Because I had no idea what I did? What DID I do? For godsakes, why didn’t they explain themselves? It troubled me for days.

Maybe they were high stakes gamblers? Maybe they broke the bank at Monte Carlo? Or Atlantic City? Who the hell knows?

And don’t think there weren’t plenty of little risqué remarks going around about what I did to earn that money. I’m sure there are girls working as cocktail waitress in “Gentleman’s Clubs” who get tips like this all the time. Sometimes they flirt with the customers or bend down a little low at the table when they drop off the hot wings. But I’m fully clothed. The whole black pants, white shirt and tie thing. Even if I wanted to lean over a table, all they would see is my tie in their soup. And you don’t get tipped for that. Trust me. Nevertheless, I laughed along with the dirty little jokes. But deep down inside, I was troubled. I felt like a fraud. An imposter. On my worst days, a thief. I hadn’t done anything special, nor shown anything special besides my knowledge of the Spanish word for cheesecake.

It’s been a week now. I assume my three guys are back in Barcelona or somewhere, dining on bistec and polishing off a bottle of Rioja. As for myself, I finally dipped into my ill-gotten tip money and purchased a lovely dresser for my clothes. I bought it at a Spanish-owned store in my neighborhood---figured I should probably give back to the community.

But the guilt has been overwhelming. The Spanish guys never came back. Maybe they didn’t have any more money. Or maybe they hopped on their private jet and were whisked back to their castles in Spain.

What I do know is that the next time you’re in a restaurant and you want to piss off your waitress---just leave her a really, REALLY big tip.